What constitutes family? East Lansing homeowners petitioning for reform


East Lansing resident Susan Froetschel is frustrated because “I can’t use my home as I thought I could.”

Her son’s girlfriend cannot stay with her more than 30 days in a row or 60 days in a year, Froetschel said.  “I also cannot have my lifelong friend, who’s closer to me than many of my family members, stay for more than 30 days.”

That’s thanks to a city ordinance and zoning requirements that restrict permanent occupancy to family members or no more than two unrelated people. Otherwise, a rental license is required.

Froetschel and her husband, Doug Olsen, who live in the Glencairn neighborhood, only recently became aware of the city’s prohibition and that a violation could result in fines of more than $500 per day.

That’s led the couple to join a group of like-minded neighbors to start a petition to amend the city’s charter to change the restriction.

City Council member Mark Meadows defended its passage, which was 27 years ago, as part of curtailing an “an extreme spread of rental housing into the neighborhoods.”

“We looked to at least stabilize those neighborhoods through Ordinance 900,” which passed in 1997. It reduced the number of unrelated individuals who could live together from four to two.

Meadow said that since then, the ordinance “has been challenged by the landlords, and they lost the lawsuit.”

“It’s something that we should be proud of,” Meadows said, adding that “after the courts approved it, it was also adopted in other college towns throughout Michigan.”

The couple only found out about these laws by accident while attending city meetings about plans for rental restrictions in their neighborhood. The process opened an adjacent debate over who can live where in East Lansing, how the city defines concepts like “family,” “tenant” and “guest,” and what constitutes a fair penalty for violating the city’s housing code.

 “I will not violate the law, but that’s very appalling to me,” Froetschel said.

The debate isn’t new to East Lansing. In 2013, two years after moving from her East Lansing condo to a new home, state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou was hit with a stack of 33 tickets and more than $18,000 in fines from the city after she allowed a friend to stay in her condo rent-free until she sold it.

Tsernoglou was ticketed for violating East Lansing’s city housing code, which states that “occupancy of any dwelling by any person other than the owner of record shall be presumed to require a rental license.”

Previously unaware of that provision, Tsernoglou enlisted Mark Grebner, an attorney and longtime Ingham County commissioner, to help her make sense of the violations.

“When she got married, she put it on the market,” Grebner said. “The problem was she bought it just before the housing crash, and of course there was no there were no buyers. So, she had a friend of hers move in to kind of sweep the place up and keep it looking decent so she could show it if somebody showed up.”

Grebner went on to successfully defend Tsernoglou in court. In May 2014, 54B District Judge Richard Ball threw out the citations, and Tsernoglou paid just $2,320.

Grebner said he’s taken 20 or so cases like Tsernoglou’s over the years, calling them “the definition of an arbitrary and capricious administration of justice.”

“No possibility exists that this is a sensible way to do business or a fair way to treat people. There’s no way an appellate court could uphold it, or an honest City Council could get behind it,” he said. He added that he did not think the current City Council was “standing behind it” but rather had other priorities at the moment.

Concerned over their rights as homeowners, Froetschel and Olsen teamed up with other concerned residents this spring to start a petition to address the issue. They enlisted the help of a few attorneys, including Grebner, who helped draft ballot language for the proposed charter amendment.

In essence, the amendment would prohibit the city from restricting “relationships of persons living together as a household or residing in homes or interfere with rights of owners to live with persons of their choice, so long as they are not rent-paying tenants.”

To address situations like Tsernoglou’s, where she wasn’t notified that she was violating the city code before being handed multiple tickets, Grebner suggested adding a provision that would require the city to “first notify owners and occupants of the violation by issuing an order and allowing at least seven days to comply.”

Concerned that most East Lansing residents were unaware of these occupancy restrictions, the group also added language requiring the city to “maintain current and accurate records of all zoning and rental license violations, which shall be open for public inspection.”

On April 1, they sent the proposed ballot language to the city manager, attorney and members of the City Council. Froetschel said they offered advice and feedback that the group then incorporated. They began collecting signatures on Sunday.

Patrick Rose, an East Lansing resident and attorney, also supports the amendment. He said the group has already gone door-to-door to gauge public opinion before collecting signatures. They saw enough initial support during that process to suggest that the petition, which requires just 1% of the city’s registered voters to support it to appear on the ballot, will eventually make its way to the people for a vote.

 “What that tells us is that people are broadly favorable of allowing themselves to use their home to have people in it who are not renters, who the city should not be regulating with criminal penalties and large fines,” Rose said.

Rose added that he expects many who supported the overlay district to also sign the petition.

“Residents who favor overlay districts to limit house rentals still want to choose with whom they live,” he explained.

Froetschel agreed.

“What we’re trying to propose has nothing to do with rentals. It’s just good to know what you can and can’t do with your home. We just want to put it out there and have a good debate about these things so we can finally settle it once and for all,” she said.

“Flexibility is important,” she added. “You just never know what might happen to a year or two down the road. Your life today will not stay the same, I can guarantee that. And it’s sometimes hard to think ahead and imagine what problems could develop and how your needs might change.”



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